“We should thank our lucky stars they’re still putting out a program of this caliber after so many years.” – Lisa Simpson
Season 8, which ran from October of 1996 to May of 1997, has more than one episode that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of The Simpsons, which may be why Season 8 has the feeling of a show that is winding itself down. Starting all the way back in Season 1, with a joke about cartoons being on in primetime, The Simpsons had always sent itself up along with everything else. Whether it was laughing at its own Thanksgiving parade float, describing its theme music as an “annoying tune”, quickly glancing at the fourth wall, or making jokes about the endless merchandise FOX cranked out with abandon, the show often found lighthearted ways to poke fun at itself and its success.
Starting in Season 8 though, the tone of those jokes changed markedly. Where the show had once been fond of an occasional subtle nudge to let the audience know that it was aware of the absurdities of episodic television (Burns never remembering Homer, Marge reminding Bart that he hasn’t used any of his famous catchphrases in four years), now it seemed exasperated or downright indifferent. For all its great moments, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” is about nothing so much as the show throwing up its hands at its own audience. And when “Burns, Baby Burns” ends with a spontaneous party after a dire and rather lengthy police chase, Homer shrugs his shoulders and says, “It doesn’t have to make sense”.
That episode, which had Rodney Dangerfield as the long lost son of Mr. Burns, also showcased the increasingly stupid and invincible nature of Homer. More than any previous year, Season 8 saw Homer acting outrageously for the sake of being outrageous. The third act of “Burns, Baby Burns” is Homer’s cartoonish efforts to stage a “phony kidnapping”, the purpose of which is to get Mr. Burns to admit he loves his son. It was the kind of frenetic scheme that sitcom characters have been doing since the days of I Love Lucy, but it wasn’t something Homer had done before.
The elaborate and energetic nature of Homer’s scheme in “Burns, Baby Burns” was jarringly out of character for a man who had, a mere two seasons earlier, been kicked out of his own secret society for being too much of a dullard. He’d once gotten himself and his son lost at sea by being too lazy and stupid to row to shore; and he fell asleep while his family was being attacked by Sideshow Bob. Just the previous year he took lethargy to new widths by purposely getting fat enough to work from home. Now, out of the blue, he launched himself into an action-movie-worth of stunts over the mildly hurt feelings of a man he’d just met.
As odd as that was, the crowning moment of the show’s new fondness for acknowledging its zaniness and its own shortcomings was “Homer’s Enemy”, better known as the Frank Grimes episode. Through more than 150 episodes (at that point), Homer had fallen down Springfield Gorge, saved the nuclear plant from meltdown, been attacked by killer amusement park robots, and been portrayed by Dennis Franz in a made-for-TV movie. To call his life abnormal would be an understatement, and the premise of “Homer’s Enemy” is to ask the question: what would a normal man think about working with Homer Simpson? The answer was grim: he’d hate it so much that it would kill him.
The episode is a fan favorite, and with good reason. It’s loaded with in-jokes, cultural references, and the absurdities of working at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, where there’s deadly acid in the break room and the autocratic boss made a dog his executive vice president. But “Homer’s Enemy” is also an admission that the show couldn’t go on as it had. After inviting Grimes to his house, Homer attempts to impress him by giving him a partial list of his adventures and accomplishments:
Homer: Yeah, that’s me all right. And the guy standing next to me is President Gerald Ford. And this is when I was on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins. Oh, and here’s a picture of me in outer space.
Homer goes on to ask if Grimes would like to see his Grammy award. The scene is the crux of the episode, and is what pushes Grimes from a simple, everyday thing like hating a lousy coworker into an insane and eventually fatal jealousy. But in making Homer’s fantastical accomplishments so nakedly obvious, the show also pointed to its own coming apocalypse. All of the incidents Homer recounts to Grimes came from Season 5 or later, and for the show to continue, it would have no choice but to continually up the ante for Homer’s wacky adventures.
Far more than in any previous year, Season 8 is littered with scenes and plots that involve the kind of hyperkinetic cartoon violence and physics defying action that is more usually associated with Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera. That alone would’ve been an off-putting change, but The Simpsons insisted on treating these moments of animated peril seriously. That insistence made all of the action sequences not only strange, but downright dumb as well.
“The Twisted World of Marge Simpson” grows dark and threatening before ending with a transparently harmless gangster brawl on the Simpsons’ front lawn. “The Secret War of Lisa Simpson” uses an overabundance of suspenseful string music to prop up its cloying finale wherein Lisa overcomes adversity just like they always do on teevee. “In Marge We Trust” actually ends with Reverend Lovejoy battling apes who’ve managed to capture Ned Flanders.
Many of these sequences are short, funny and downright tame compared to the cartoonish nonsense that would come in a few seasons. But they were also startlingly out of place in a show that had never made use of them before. The Simpsons was increasingly relying on cartoonish tricks and (danger free) action sequences to tell its stories, and was making those parts even harder to swallow by playing the over-the-top moments of animated madness for suspense instead of comedy.
In “The Homer They Fall”, Homer becomes a boxer, and the final third of the episode is a hodgepodge of nonsense and fake foreboding. After Moe agrees to let Homer fight Drederick Tatum for the heavyweight championship, there are numerous scenes that simply don’t fit in with the show as it had been. Moe sincerely struggles with his ethics. Marge frets over Homer’s safety. And, worst of all, the show pretends that Homer is actually in mortal danger.
The action, the morality, and the suspense don’t serve the story; they slow it down. There are a lot of great boxing jokes and Paul Winfield is devastatingly perfect as Don King parody Lucius Sweet, but the plot and its tacked on emotions seem like an afterthought. This is highlighted at the end when Moe flies into the ring, picks up Homer, flies out of the arena, and is immediately met in the parking lot by everyone he just left behind. The story has long since devolved into nonsense at that point, but the episode has a few lines left for Tatum, Fox and the others and so it throws anything that could be called believability to the wind and just has them appear outside as if by magic.26
Physical danger and clumsy resolutions like Moe’s rescue flight became increasingly common after Season 8. Episodes are weighed down by whole scenes of faux-serious chases and fights as the show began to employ the kind of cheap storytelling and phony tension that’s the bread and butter of formulaic cop/lawyer/doctor shows.
Making matters even worse, the animation, long a storytelling asset, became a liability. After all, Springfield is populated by cartoon characters. Even the most gruesome injury or fatal fall can be shaken off in the next scene, and the audience knows it. All the taut music and sad dialogue in the world can’t make up for the fact that no one is in any real danger.
Off screen, these changes are openly acknowledged on the DVD commentaries. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein state repeatedly that they were “experimenting” because they didn’t think the show would be on much longer. The sentiment is shared by a number of the other people who’d been on staff. And it made sense to think things were coming to an end; after all, The Simpsons had been broadcasting for eight seasons; even hits rarely last longer.
The mighty Cosby Show had petered out after eight seasons; Seinfeld, the other critical darling of the 1990s, only lasted nine, and had finally gone off the air just that year. A show can only stay sharp and relevant for so long because eventually the characters accumulate so many adventures and backstories that there just isn’t anything left to say. On top of that, the general cultural circumstances change. When The Simpsons got started, the airwaves and the Nielsen ratings were littered with family sitcoms. By the late 1990s, and thanks in no small part to The Simpsons, there were hardly any left.
Oakley and Weinstein weren’t entirely wrong in thinking the show was near its end. Those charts of fan sentiment (Chapter 1) and writer experience (Chapter 5) were teetering on the edge of a permanent crash. In all the numbers, the drop from Season 8 to Season 9 is larger than the drop from Season 7 to Season 8. The plunge from Season 9 to Season 10 would be even steeper. Things wouldn’t level off until Season 12, and by then there was hardly anything left of The Simpsons.
Continue to Chapter 9: Armin Tamzarian and the Death of Story.
Notes and Sources